Curtis LeMay

Curtis LeMay

Curtis Emerson LeMay was born in Columbus, Ohio, on 15th November 1906. He studied civil engineering at Ohio State University. LeMay joined the United States Air Corps in 1928. Two years later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

In January 1937 he joined the Air Force GHQ at Langley Field. He was a co-pilot of a B-24 Liberator that in August 1941 made a record-breaking flight of almost 25,000 miles. On the plane was W. Averell Harriman, who was on a survey of routes the Ferrying Command would use to deliver Lend Lease to the Soviet Union.

When the United States entered the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, LeMay was a lieutenant colonel and commander of the 305th Bomb Group. Five months later he was given the responsibility of taking the B-17 Flying Fortress unit to England. While based in England he pioneered daylight bombing, which the RAF had abandoned as it resulted in the deaths of too many men.

LeMay developed special defensive tactics that included tight formations for mutual support. He was also an advocate pattern bombing from lower altitudes. These tactics were fairly successful and the 305 Bomb Group lost only 13 planes in 25 missions.

The introduction of P-47 Thunderbolt fighters made B-17 Flying Fortress missions much more effective. On 17th August 1943 LeMay led 126 B-17 aircraft to bomb Germany before being refueled in North Africa. On their return flight they attacked the Focke-Wulf plant in Bordeaux.

Curtis LeMay was promoted to brigadier general on 28th September 1943. The following year he took over the 20th Bomb Group. Starting in August 1944, Lemay organized the bombing of targets in China, Manchuria and Japan.

On 20th January 1945 he appointed as head of 21st Bomb Group based on Guam. By this time the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force had devised the strategy of creation firestorms. This was achieved by dropping incendiary bombs, filled with highly combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus or petroleum jelly (napalm), in clusters over a specific target. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area, become extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.

This strategy was used successfully by LeMay in Japan. During 1945 some 100,000 tons of incendiaries were dropped on 66 cities killing over 260,000 people and destroying an estimated 2,210,000 buildings. The large number of Japanese buildings made of wood made it easy for the bombers to create firestorms. On the 9th and 10th March 1945, a raid on Tokyo devastated the city. Robert McNamara, who served with LeMay during the war, later claimed that they would have been prosecuted as war criminals if the United States had lost the war.

Curtis LeMay was involved in the discussions concerning the use of the B-29 Stratafortress bomber to drop the atom bomb on Japan. He helped select the targets of Hiroshima (6th August) and Nagasaki (9th August). On 10th August the Japanese surrendered. The Second World War was over.

After the war Major General LeMay commanded the USAF in Europe. In 1948 he directed the highly complex Berlin Airlift. In 1951 LeMay became the youngest full general in American history since Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1949, LeMay was appointed as head of Strategic Air Command (SAC) and is credited with overseeing its transformation into a modern air force. LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in July 1957, serving until 1961 when he was made the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. In this post he clashed repeatedly with President John F. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara.

LeMay believed that nuclear war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. According to the Washington Post (19th July, 1961) he told people at a Georgetown dinner party that a nuclear war would break-out later that year and that major cities such as Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit would be destroyed.

On 20th July, 1961, at a National Security Council meeting, General Lyman Lemnitzer presented John F. Kennedy with an official plan for a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Kennedy was disgusted and walked out of the meeting and later remarked to Secretary of State Dean Rusk "and we call ourselves the human race."

Robert McNamara told David Talbot in an interview for the book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years about Curtis LeMay's views on nuclear war. "LeMay's view was very simple. He thought the West, and the U.S. in particular, was going to have to fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and he was absolutely certain of that. Therefore, he believed that we should fight it sooner rather than later, when we had a greater advantage in nuclear power, and it would result in fewer casualties in the United States."

LeMay argued that the United States should launch 5,000 missiles on the Soviet Union. He was convinced this would destroy their 350 nuclear missiles and therefore prevent an attack on the United States. John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara rejected this strategy as immoral.

On 13th March, 1962, General Lyman Lemnitzer, with the support of Lemay, presented Robert McNamara with a top-secret memo, urging President Kennedy to order a variety of shocking incidents to create a rationale for invading Cuba. Code named Operation Northwoods, the memo suggested that the administration should arrange a terror campaign in Miami and Washington that would create international revulsion against the government of Fidel Castro.

President John F. Kennedy summoned Lemnitzer to the Oval Office on 16th March, 1962, where they discussed Operation Northwoods. Kennedy rejected the idea and three months later he told Lemnitzer that he was being moved from the Pentagon to become Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in September 1962, LeMay wanted to bomb nuclear sites in Cuba. When John F. Kennedy asked LeMay how the Soviet Union would respond if the United States bombed their missiles in Cuba. He replied that they would "do nothing". Kennedy argued for a blockade of Cuba. LeMay responded by accusing the president of acting like Neville Chamberlain during the Munich Crisis and that the blockade scheme as "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich".

Ted Sorensen, who was at the meeting later commented: "Telling Kennedy this is like Munich, is too soft, and the American people will think so too! That's what outraged me - a general telling the president of the United States what the people think."

Thirteen days after the crisis began, Nikita Khrushchev announced that he would withdraw the missiles from Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade, and after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay told a friend: "We had a chance to throw the Communists out of Cuba. But the (Kennedy) administration was scared to death (the Soviet Union) might shoot a missile at us."

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Curtis LeMay enjoyed a better relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. LeMay argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted "back to the Stone Age." Others pointed out that "terror" raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots.

Lyndon B. Johnson preferred the latter proposal but was aware he would have difficulty convincing the American public and the rest of the world that such action was justified. He therefore gave permission for a plan to be put into operation that he surmised would eventually enable him to carry out the bombing raids on North Vietnam.

Operation Plan 34A involved the sending of Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and the kidnapping or killing of communist officials. As part of this plan, it was decided to send US destroyers into North Vietnamese waters to obtain information on their naval defences. On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer, "Maddox" was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, "Maddox" fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The "Maddox" then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to return to the Gulf of Tonkin.

Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters, Captain Herrick reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: "Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by "Maddox". Suggest complete evaluation before further action."

Lyndon B. Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for and ignored Captain Herrick's second message. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously. Johnson then went on television and told the American people that: "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight."

The Congress approved Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam and passed what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the Senate by 88 votes to 2 and in the House of Representatives by 416 to 0. This resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the NLF.

On 2nd March, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson telephoned Robert McNamara, to prepare a statement on Vietnam. Two days later, McNamara issued a statement rejecting withdrawal, neutralization, or American ground troops. This was discussed with the five Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Maxwell Taylor argued for “the progressive and selective attack against targets in North Vietnam”. General LeMay advocated an immediate “hard blow”. Johnson replied he did “not want to start a war before November” (the date of the 1964 presidential election).

The Republican Party surprisingly nominated the extreme conservative, Barry Goldwater. During the election campaign Goldwater called for an escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese. In comparison to Goldwater, Johnson was seen as the 'peace' candidate. People feared that Goldwater would send troops to fight in Vietnam. Johnson, on the other hand, argued that he was not willing: "to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

In the 1964 presidential election. Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been a popular leader during his year in office, easily defeated Goldwater by 42,328,350 votes to 26,640,178. Johnson gained 61 per cent of the popular vote, giving him the largest majority ever achieved by an American president.

After the election LeMay was disappointed that Lyndon B. Johnson did not order a sustained bombing campaign like the one he organized against Germany and Japan during the Second World War. Once again LeMay clashed with Robert McNamara. According to Daniel Ellsberg McNamara was the main person responsible from stopping LeMay "from firebombing or nuking Vietnam".

In February, 1965, General Curtis LeMay retired from the army. Patrick J. Frawley of the right-wing pressure group, the American Security Council (ASC), approached LeMay about standing against liberal Senator Thomas Kuchel. However, the candidacy went to Max Rafferty, who unseated Kuchel in the primary but lost to Democrat Alan Cranston in the election.

George Wallace, the racial segregationist, persuaded LeMay to become his running-mate in the newly formed American Independent Party. Wallace had a 21% approval rating until LeMay gave a nationally televised press conference where he argued that the government should consider using nuclear weapons to bring an end to the Vietnam War. This shocked the American public and LeMay's comments helped Richard Nixon win an easy victory in 1968.

Curtis LeMay died on 1st October, 1990.

Primary Sources

(1) Studs Terkel interviewed John Ciardi of the United States Air Force about his experiences during the Second World War for his book, The Good War (1985)

I had dreams of being a pilot, so I signed up as an aviation cadet. The army decided I was not pilot material. The army was right. They sent me to navigation school. I would have come out as a navigator and been sent to the Eighth Air Force. As a graduate student, I had signed some petitions in favor of the Spanish Loyalists. When I came up for graduation from the navigation school, I was classified as a PAF - a premature anti-fascist. The Dies Committee had wired in. I did not get a commission. A year later, I heard that all forty-four men of my graduating class were either dead or missing in action.

When we got to Saipan, I was a gunner on a B-29. It seemed certain to me we were not going to survive. We had to fly thirty-five missions. The average life of a crew was something between six and eight missions. So you simply took the extra pay, took the badges, took relief from dirty details.

On the night before a mission, you reviewed the facts. You tried to get some sleep. The army is very good at keeping you awake forever before you have a long mission. Sleep wouldn't come to you. You get to thinking by this time tomorrow you may have burned to death. I used to have little routines for kidding myself: Forget it, you died last week. You'd get some Dutch courage out of that.

We were in the terrible business of burning out Japanese towns. That meant women and old people, children. One part of me - a surviving savage voice - says, I'm sorry we left any of them living. I wish we'd finished killing them all. Of course, as soon as rationality overcomes the first impulse, you say. Now, come on, this is the human race, let's try to be civilized.

I had to condition myself to be a killer. This was remote control. All we did was push buttons. I didn't see anybody we killed. I saw the fires we set. The first four and a half months was wasted effort. We lost all those crews for nothing. We had been trained to do precision high-altitude bombing from thirty-two thousand feet. It was all beautifully planned, except we discovered the Siberian jet stream. The winds went off all computed bomb tables. We began to get winds at two hundred knots, and the bombs simply scattered all over Japan. We were hitting nothing and losing planes.

Curtis LeMay came in and changed the whole operation. He had been head of the Eighth Air Force and was sent over to take on the Twentieth. That's the one I was in. He changed tactics. He said. Go in at night from five thousand feet, without gunners, just a couple of rear-end observers. We'll save weight on the turrets and on ammunition. The Japanese have no fighter resistance at night. They have no radar. We'll drop fire sticks.

I have some of my strike photos at home. Tokyo looked like one leveled bed of ash. The only things standing were some stone buildings. If you looked at the photos carefully, you'd see that they were gutted. Some of the people jumped into rivers to get away from these fire storms. They were packed in so tight to get away from the fire, they suffocated. They were so close to one another, they couldn't fall over. It must have been horrible.

(2) Homer Bigart, New York Tribune (16th August, 1945)

The radio tells us that the war is over but from where I sit it looks suspiciously like a rumor. A few minutes ago - at 1:32 a.m. - we fire-bombed Kumagaya, a small industrial city behind Tokyo near the northern edge of Kanto Plain. Peace was not official for the Japanese either, for they shot right back at us.

Other fires are raging at Isesaki, another city on the plain, and as we skirt the eastern base of Fujiyama Lieutenant General James Doolittle's B-29s, flying their first mission from the 8th Air Force base on Okinawa, arrive to put the finishing touches on Kumagaya.

I rode in the City of Saco (Maine), piloted by First Lieutenant Theodore J. Lamb, twenty-eight, of 103-21 Lefferts Blvd, Richmond Hill, Queens, New York. Like all the rest. Lamb's crew showed the strain of the last five days of the uneasy "truce" that kept Superforts grounded.

They had thought the war was over. They had passed most of the time around radios, hoping the President would make it official. They did not see that it made much difference whether Emperor Hirohito stayed in power. Had our propaganda not portrayed him as a puppet? Well, then, we could use him just as the war lords had done.

The 314th Bombardment Wing was alerted yesterday morning. At 2:20 p.m., pilots, bombardiers, navigators, radio men, and gunners trooped into the briefing shack to learn that the war was still on. Their target was to be apathetically small city of little obvious importance, and their commanding officer. Colonel Carl R. Storrie, of Denton, Texas, was at pains to convince them why Kumagaya, with a population of 49,000, had to be burned to the ground.

There were component parts factories of the Nakajima aircraft industry in the town, he said. Moreover, it was an important railway center.

No one wants to die in the closing moments of a war. The wing chaplain. Captain Benjamin Schmidke, of Springfield, Mo., asked the men to pray, and then the group commander jumped on the platform and cried: "This is the last mission. Make it the best we ever ran."

Colonel Storrie was to ride in one of the lead planes, dropping four 1,000-pound high explosives in the hope that the defenders of the town would take cover in buildings or underground and then be trapped by a box pattern of fire bombs to be dumped by eighty planes directly behind.

"We've got 'em on the one yard line. Let's push the ball over," the colonel exhorted his men. "This should be the final knockout blow of the war. Put your bombs on the target so that tomorrow the world will have peace."

(3) Willy Brandt interviewed by Terence Prittle (1974)

It would not be fair to be over-critical, particularly when such a fine rescue operation for Berlin was mounted by the Western Powers. Maybe there were delays.... I would prefer to stress the positive aspects of the Blockade. First, it was a heroic episode in which the Allied pilots and the Berliners played the main roles. Then it brought about a feeling of real co-operation between the Berliners and the Allies. Those were grey, grim days; but our people showed their steadfastness, their courage, their dry humour and their basic decency.

(4) Mark M. Boatner III, Curtis LeMay (1996)

LeMay was promoted to brigadier general on 28 Sep 43 and got his second star on 2 Mar 44. The tough young airman, only 37 years old, did not look or act like a hero. Below middle height (about five feet eight) and not charismatic, he was notoriously taciturn-virtually incapable of small talk. But the airman was a stickler for discipline, training, and maintenance.

(5) David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2007)

LeMay was in the habit of taking bullying command of Joint Chiefs meetings. With his sagging jowls and chronic scowl, he came across as a bulldog marking his territory. He blew cigar smoke in the faces of anyone who disagreed with him and communicated his boredom and contempt by leaving ajar the door to the bathroom that was located off the Joint Chiefs conference room while he relieved himself with raucous abandon. The Air Force chief reverted to the same confrontational style with Kennedy in the Cabinet Room that morning. The loathing between the two men was mutual and complete. They had already clashed over the developing crisis, at a White House meeting held the day before. Kennedy had asked LeMay to predict how the Russians would respond if the United States bombed Cuba. "They'll do nothing," LeMay blandly replied. "Are you trying to tell me that they'll let us bomb their missiles, and kill a lot of Russians and then do nothing?" an incredulous Kennedy shot back. "If they don't do anything in Cuba, then they'll certainly do something in Berlin." JFK was always sensitive to how a move on one square of the Cold War chessboard might trigger a countermove somewhere else.

After the meeting, the president was still shaking his head over the general's blithe prediction. "Can you imagine LeMay saying a thing like that?" Kennedy wondered aloud to O'Donnell when he got back to his office. "These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."

At the Friday meeting, LeMay bluntly declared that "we don't have any choice except direct military action." And he obstinately repeated his prediction from the day before, insisting that there would be no Soviet response to an air strike on Cuba. "I don't think [the Russians] are going to make any reprisal if we tell them that the Berlin situation is just like it's always been. If they make a move, we're going to fight." LeMay made no effort to hide his disgust with Kennedy's blockade strategy. It reeked of cowardly Neville Chamberlain, he growled. The general was certainly crafty enough to know what he was doing when he raised the specter of Munich. He must have known how it would put Kennedy on the defensive, with its reminder of his father's shameful performance as ambassador to London. Kennedy's blockade scheme was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich," he needled the president.

Emboldened by LeMay, the other chiefs jumped into the fray, repeating the Air Force general's call for immediate military action. "I do not see that, as long as the Soviet Union is supporting Cuba, that there is any solution to the Cuban problem except a military solution," Admiral Anderson lectured Kennedy. Even Taylor and Shoup endorsed LeMay's bellicose position. But Kennedy evaded the chiefs' attempts to back him into a corner. When a rambling, inarticulate Shoup offered the passing observation that the Soviet Union already had the ability to strike the United States without the Cuba missiles, Kennedy seized on this side comment. Maybe the installation of the new missiles was not such a destabilizing development, the president suggested-perhaps it was not worth risking nuclear war over. "No matter what they put in there, we could live today under [this threat]," Kennedy mused aloud.

This conciliatory sentiment provoked another outburst from LeMay. "If we leave them there," the general fumed, the Communist bloc would wield a "blackmail threat against not only us but the other South American countries." Then the Air Force chief did something remarkable. He decided to violate traditional military-civilian boundaries and issue a barely veiled political threat. If the president responded weakly to the Soviet challenge in Cuba, he warned him, there would be political repercussions overseas, where Kennedy's government would be perceived as spineless. "And I'm sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way too," LeMay added. With his close ties to militaristic congressional leaders and the far right, LeMay left no doubt about the political damage he could cause the administration. "In other words, you're in a pretty bad fix at the present time," LeMay told Kennedy.